The end of fossil fuels: some data and quick calculations

The International Energy Agency recently released data showing that world coal production fell sharply in 2016, mainly because of big cuts in China. Looking at the graph, it appears that the peak in production was around 2013. The price of coal has experienced a “dead cat bounce” over the last year or so, essentially because China has been closing coal mines faster than it’s been closing or cancelling coal-fired power stations, but the picture tells the story for the future.

Global coal production (source IEA)

Until relatively recently, the decline of coal was the result of competition with gas, while new renewables weren’t even enough to cover the growth in demand. But a quick calculation shows that renewables will soon be taking out a bigger bite. Global electricity generation is currently about 20000 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year, growing at around 1.5 per cent, or 300TWh a year. Installations of solar PV and wind (I haven’t checked on hydro and other renewables) for 2017 look set to come in around 150 gigawatts (GW). Assuming 2000 hours of operation per year, that’s just enough to offset demand growth. So, any future growth in renewables must come directly at the expense of existing fossil fuel generation which in practice will almost always mean coal.

Turning to transport, regular commenter James Wimberley has an analysis of the prospects for peak gasoline (petrol) used in internal combustion engines. Summarising drastically, his best estimate for peak gasoline is 2032. Decarbonization requires an end to petrol-driven vehicle sales by around 2035. On this front, the good news is that quite a few countries, including the UK, France and India are pushing for an end by 2030.

Of course, all of this assumes that the attempts of Trump and Turnbull (along with likeminded culture warriors in Turkey, Poland and elsewhere) to bail out the dying coal industry come to nothing and also that Trump doesn’t manage to destroy the planet through nuclear war.

44 thoughts on “The end of fossil fuels: some data and quick calculations

  1. I enjoyed the article by James Wimberley. I suspect peak gasoline will occur earlier because we are heading for an oil crunch due to the lack of investment in additional oil production. This will increase vehicle efficiency encourage electric vehicle sales and development. Oil prices will then plummet, but a number of reasons, including national security in India and China, I don’t think gasoline will become popular again. China for one is preparing to switch over to all electric vehicle production and they’re not likely to switch back just because the price of oil fell.

    But note I don’t own very many palaces, so I probably don’t actually know for certain what will happen to oil prices.

  2. I of course also enjoyed your article, John. I didn’t mean to suggest yours wasn’t good. It’s great. I love it!

  3. An assumption of 2,000 hours of operation a year gives a 23% capacity rate. Because solar farms using single axis tracking are now pretty common and it is normal for new wind farms to have capacity factors of around 40% that figure may be a little low.

    On the other hand, capacity factors in China do tend to be low, but some of this is solvable transmission issues. Also, as the price of electricity falls in the middle of sunny days it will probably make sense for solar farms to continue the trend of decreasing the ratio of inverter to PV capacity.

  4. IMO it was time to abandon the notion of Peak Oil a few years ago. Fracking has really put that one to bed.

    Renewables need to compete on price, not scarcity. Thankfully, they are doing a bang up job of it due to Chinese investment. Now if only Musk can perfect the batteries to solve the baseload problem, then we would be really getting somewhere.

  5. Thanks for the h/t. There is not enough data to justify even a brave extrapolation on the replacement of diesels in commercial vehicles by electric traction, but there is enough going on (read the post) to think that the replacement will follow a similar trajectory

    JQ’s growth rate for electricity demand of 1.5% is conservative. A chart at Carbon Brief ( and scroll down) gives the 2015 rate below 1%, and the trend is down.

    Many energy planners have systematically been underestimating technical progress in electric appliances and machinery, from load-following pump motors to smart thermostats, standby circuitry and LED lighting. Much of this is driven by Moore’s Law and the tens of billions of super-cheap embedded microprocessors in everything. Thanks Roger/Sophie Wilson, the brilliant transgender engineer who set ARM rolling. There’s tribute to her on my blog.

  6. Australia’s electricity generation will be over 23% renewable by 2020 but how much it will be over that depends on if utility scale renewable construction stalls once the Large-scale Generation component of the Renewable Energy Target is filled, which it soon will be given the current build out.

    Coalition policy is quite clearly intended to result in a stall.

  7. @m0nty
    Monty I recently remarked that whenever a new proposal comes up, the first “assessment” is the dollar cost. The fight is against CO2 (greenhouse gases really), or the effects of too much of it. The likelihood, if unchecked is very dire for all of mankind for centuries. The stakes are seriously high.
    So it seems to me that the first assessment should be “how effective will this new proposal be?” The outlook for unchecked CO2 is so bad that dollar considerations should be relegated to a lower level. Can you imagine, a century from now and the world in serious climate trouble, saying that “we could not afford to fix the CO2 problems”.

  8. @gmhendo
    That’s nice in theory, but the world doesn’t work as easily as that. Putting a price on carbon is supremely difficult in political terms. There are still technological hurdles to jump before renewables can be entirely reliable. The fight against coal is being won, but oil is going to hang around a lot longer.

  9. @Ronald
    Sure, there are scenarios in which fossil fuels in transport drop faster than in my guesstimate, and I mentioned some of the relevant factors in my post. But you need to remember that a lot of good news is already baked into a 2032 gasoline peak, which implies a CAGR for EV sales of almost 40%. There are risks the other way too.

    Coal is shrinking now, as JQ says, and the fall is sure to continue. Liquid fuel for transport will very probably keep rising, see my post. But what about the third leg, gas? Grid storage is becoming competitive with gas speakers in parts of the USA, while renewables sre competitive with CCGT. Gas prices are higher in most other places. Thusvsuggests a future fall in gas use. But the substitution of gas for coal has not yet played itself out, and there isn’t much progress on the heating load. Watch this space.

  10. I assume this is total coal not total thermal coal. Thermal coal is the interesting one in this discussion – are their figures for that rather than total coal. Rises in the use of coking coal may be disguising greater falls in the use of thermal coal.

  11. These are hopeful signs. The concern is we have started far too late in curbing emissions enough and in time to stop a dangerous amount of global warming. Certain amplifying feed-backs seem to be kicking in and these will cause us serious trouble. A few that can be named are melting permafrost (large CO2 and methane release) arboreal forest fires and peat bed fires.

    Some are now talking of CO2 sequestration. We are probably going to need it but is there any method that is safe and economically viable? It is hard to find information on this, at least for me.

  12. @Jon Brodie
    How can coking coal be going up when pig iron production is falling? More slowly than thermal coal, as it’s not driven by substitution of something else for steel, just tertiarisation and the rise of cheaper steel from recycled scrap.

  13. @m0nty
    Hi m0nty, thanks for your remarks.

    I guess I see the priority as finding a way to fix the problem, and then considering cost and then evaluating that cost against other effective options. Getting the best bang for the buck.
    But if you are drowning, and some person throws you a life saving device, are you going to worry about the colour or cost of that device? I see the priority as saving the planet and if the price is higher than we want, that’s too bad. One view might be that we are in this position now because we (Man) has over-spent his resources, gone into debt so to speak. Repaying that debt is perhaps a part of fixing our greenhouse gas problem.

  14. @James Wimberley
    I wasn’t suggesting it was – just would like to see the two types split as their usage amounts are dependent on very different factors and having just total coal hides this difference.

  15. Matters look very concerning. Read this article and some of the links. It’s going to be touch and go, 50-50, whether we can save humankind basically. The sooner a global climate emergency is declared the better. Governments must make emergency changes to our entire economy and ways of doing business as if it were a matter of human-kind’s life or death… because it is.

  16. James, I am just optimistic, or perhaps pessimistic, that we will have a long period of very high oil prices that will result in little investment in new production because any new capacity that can’t pay itself off in a short period of time will probably never pay itself off thanks to demand destruction. Throw in one or two supply restrictions that have often cropped up in the past as a result of people killing each other, and we may see a lot of demand destruction for gasoline resulting from high prices.

    I see this demand destruction coming from new gasoline powered vehicles having their average efficiency increased and new electric vehicles doing far more kilometers per year on average than gasoline vehicles, as they are used as taxis and commercial vehicles.

    I also don’t think it will be that long before autonomous taxis are a thing. This is mainly because in Australia the Department of Transport has made it very clear they don’t approve of human beings driving cars. Interestingly, they did this long before robot cars were a possibility.

    Anyway, when I said I was optimistic about reaching peak gasoline before 2032 I was serious. That is, I seriously meant that I was optimistic. If I was certain, I would have used the word such as the word certain. I’m afraid I don’t don’t really know what will happen and I’ve been wrong about lots of things in the past. I never thought wind power would fall so far and fast in price, I thought thermal CSP would be further along its development curve by now, and only thought nuclear power would be priced out of the market and not laughed out.

  17. Ikono, dumping of plant biomass in deep ocean water, areas of sedimentation, or cold water lakes may be the lowest cost way sequestering atmospheric CO2. I think it may be possible to do it for under $100 Australian dollars per tonne of CO2 sequested. Although I have to admit that compared to some other estimates, mine is — optimistic.

    At $100 Australian it would cost about 5.4 cents to sequester the CO2 released from using a natural gas turbine to generate one kilowatt-hour of electricity.

    There are practical issues to be considered though. Can some forms of agricultural waste be dumped at sea and expected to sink before significant release of CO2 or other greenhouse gasses occurs in upper waters? Will it need to be bailed up with ballast so it sinks? What effect will it have on marine life — despite the fact we are already killing everything in the oceans? And so on.

  18. @Ikonoclast It’s unlikely that any method of mass carbon sequestration will be economically viable without a carbon price. We disagree I think on the prospects of managed capitalism getting us to net zero, but the necessary sequestration beyond that is an inherently socialist project, the largest since arms production in WWII.

    There are IIRC two shovel-ready technologies already available, reafforestation and no-till farming. Beyond that, there are good prospects in Ronald’s ocean burial, injection into deep basalt beds (an EU-funded pilot in Iceland is going well), and olivine weathering. Google “mineral carbonation” in Scholar. Olivine is not a mineral you can run out of, it’s the commonest one in the Earth’s crust, trillions of tonnes of the stuff.

  19. @Ronald
    I left efficiency increases in ICEs out of the list of downside factors, sorry. One lesson of Dieselgate is that efficiency gains are now very hard to come by in ICEs honestly – Winterkorn was a crook, but a very good engineer. Against the shrinking real gains you have to set the increase in the mean size of cars. Only Americans and terrorists love pickups, but Europeans buy SUVs.

  20. Monty,

    US Fracking has indeed extended the life of oil as a low cost fuel, but it has also increased the rate of collapse of oil as a fuel when the down slope finally arrives.

    If the US continues squandering the time it has to convert to renewable energy while using up its unconventional reserves, its collapse as a nation will be thorough once the peak oil glide slope has established. Having a ready supply of low cost high yield fuel is an essential requirement for an orderly transition to a comprehensively solar energy powered nation, and that opportunity window is rapidly closing.

    The US’s current Kakistocracy is guaranteed to make America anything but “great”.

  21. James, cold water lakes don’t need to be deep, they just need to be cold. There’s a little industry in Canada devoted to pulling century old logs that sank out of the bottom of lakes for the timber industry. They’re still good.

    Probably a good idea to take expected global warming into account though

  22. @witters

    If emissions have just reached their highest level before declining, the rate of increase in concentrations must also have just reached their highest level before declining,. Renewables are currently meeting new demand, so the decrease in coal is offset by increases in oil and gas. To get a decline in emissions, and therefore a slowdown in the rate of growth of CO2 concentrations, we need renewable additions to exceed growth in demand. That was the point of the post.

  23. @John Quiggin
    Sorry, I think you posted that too quickly. For a smooth peak, the first derivative approaches zero as the peak nears. The recorded acceleration at Mauna Loa is a genuine anomaly.

    Most likely it’s noise from forest fires. Oil, gas and coal are easily measured physical quantities and are sold by big companies with an interest in keeping accurate records. You need a full-Illuminati conspiracy theory to say the data are systematically understated.

  24. Lost in moderation or submission. Trying again.
    JQ’s ballpark growth rate for electricity global demand of 1.5% is confirmed by the IEA, Electricity Information overview, 2017. Link to **/publications/freepublications/publication/ElectricityInformation2017Overview.pdf, deleting the asterisks.

    “In 2015, [world gross] electricity production was 1.7% higher than 2014 […] Gross electricity production in 2015 in non-OECD countries was 13 425 TWh, an increase of 2.8% on the 2014 levels. In contrast, OECD countries posted a marginal growth of 0.4% in their gross electricity production for the period 2014-15.’
    As you’d expect,the final consumption figures (after deducting transmission and generation losses) have very similar growth rates. But the IEA adds this:
    “Between 1974 and 2015, final electricity consumption [in non-OECD countries] increased at an average annual rate of 5.1%.” So demand is slowing down everywhere, and JQ’s 1.5% growth rate is surely an upper limit for the future.

    Will Boisvert cites the 2017 BP statistical yearbook for a 2015/2016 growth rate of 2.2% in world electricity generation. This is a big disparity for something that is easily measured and produced by large companies. A spike of 0.5% in one year is most unlikely. For all the justified pillorying of the IEA forecasters on renewables, I would trust their historical data more than BP’s. After all, they don’t have the same axe to grind. The 2016 BP yearbook doesn’t have a table for electricity at all, so they are new to this.

  25. @James Wimberley

    Noise from forest fires is not noise if forest fires are increasing. Now, I don’t know for certain if forest fires are increasing but there seems to be some evidence for it. These article titles can be searched for.

    “Stark Evidence: A Warmer World Is Sparking More and Bigger Wildfires:
    The increase in forest fires, seen this summer from North America to the Mediterranean to Siberia, is directly linked to climate change, scientists say. And as the world continues to warm, there will be greater risk for fires on nearly every continent.” – Yale Environment 360.

    This goes to the following issue. If we are decreasing emissions and are thus past the peak of direct human activity emissions, this does not mean atmospheric CO2 levels will necessarily stop growing. If we have touched certain feed-backs (increased forest fires and permafrost melt for examples) then the increases in CO2 and CH4 emissions from the these sources may now be exceeding any reduction in human activity emissions.

    In other words, we may have reached a tipping point which is a precursor to a runaway situation. This is not to say that that would a runaway to a Venus scenario. It would likely be a runaway to a new state for the world climate well outside the Holocene climate state and far less benign for human civilization. I say “may” and “a tipping point which is a precursor” both to indicate we cannot be certain and to also hold out some hope. I also say “tipping point” because we are still not showing enough urgency about this situation.

    We should not start showing “small victory complacency”. Progress is still far too slow on this issue. Nothing less than a declaration of a global climate emergency is needed along with strong statist actions to directly and rapidly remodel our entire economies are renewable economies. While we are it something needs to be done about the plastics and chemicals contamination of the biosphere. It’s all part and parcel of the unsustainable capitalist industrial economy.

  26. @Ikonoclast
    Agreed that forest fires may well not be noise strictly speaking, though even if there is a trend – and I fear yoybmay be right – the signal will be noisy as well.

    “This does not mean atmospheric CO2 level will neceassily stop growing ..”
    I am surprised that this late in the day any reader of this blog still does not get the basic relationship. Net C02 emissions push up the atmospheric concentration. They will keep on doing this as long as they are positive, at least till 2050, and that is if things go well.

    Industrial emissions have plateaued for several years. (Oil is up a bit, gas up a bit, coal down a lot.) You would expect this to correspond to a constant growth in concentrations. Instead we are seeing a modest acceleration. Explanations: the acceleration is noise; it’s due to deforestation and fires; the industrial emissions are understated for unclear reasons of Chinese politics. Personally I buy 1 and 2 but not 3.

  27. The general form of the Chinese argument seems to be: Chinese stats are dodgy and subject to revision, so I’ll just make up whatever number suits my prior beliefs.

  28. @James Wimberley

    Say what? Didn’t you read my whole paragraph? 🙂

    “If we are decreasing emissions and are thus past the peak of direct human activity emissions, this does not mean atmospheric CO2 levels will necessarily stop growing. If we have touched certain feed-backs (increased forest fires and permafrost melt for examples) then the increases in CO2 and CH4 emissions from the these sources may now be exceeding any reduction in human activity emissions.”

    I was clearly saying that reducing human activity CO2e emissions now does not stop the CO2e concentration going up IF certain feed-backs have been triggered in the biosphere. If we cut emissions by x amount per annum but the new arboreal fire regime is putting 2x emissions into the atmosphere then the increased amount in the atmosphere is x.

    I find the above to be a point that a lot human-activity focused thinkers tend to forget. Past human CO2e emissions have already changed the biosphere systems and natural sinks can and do become emitters. If you want to talk “net”, talk the global “net” inclusive of human and biosphere system changes.

    What use is it to talk of things we can’t change quickly? I mean the natural feed-backs. Well, the use is it indicates that little and slow improvements on the human activity side of the equation are unlikely to be enough. We are already into global climate emergency territory. The thing is most people do not get this fact. Some do.

  29. @James Wimberley

    But possible feedbacks are not independent of emissions and that is my point. Human emissions increase concentrations which can increase natural feedback effects which can result in more natural emissions. Total emissions equal human emissions plus natural emissions. The net result comes from human emissions plus natural emissions minus take-ups by sinks. A net positive amount (after sink take-ups) increases overall concentration (assuming thorough mixing).

    I hope we are not talking at cross-purposes here nor splitting straws (I may be guilty on both counts) when we almost certainly agree on everything substantive re the dangers of greenhouse gases and the current rate of human greenhouse emissions.

    We will likely go through a period where human emissions fall, natural emissions rise more than this (from feedbacks already induced) and thus atmospheric concentrations will continue rising.

    “While we may not yet have reached the “point of no return”—when no amount of cutbacks on greenhouse gas emissions will save us from potentially catastrophic global warming—climate scientists warn we may be getting awfully close. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution a century ago, the average global temperature has risen some 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Most climatologists agree that, while the warming to date is already causing environmental problems, another 0.4 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature, representing a global average atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) of 450 parts per million (ppm), could set in motion unprecedented changes in global climate and a significant increase in the severity of natural disasters—and as such could represent the dreaded point of no return.” – Scientific American.

    This colloquial answer to a reader’s question is somewhat incomplete. It doesn’t specifically mention the touching off of runaway feed-backs. The most serious question is whether we have touched off feedbacks for which no reduction of human emissions, even to zero, will now compensate, thus dooming us to a period of runaway climate change (to a new limiting point). Such a runaway period would be measured in thousands of years at least. It might even be one or two orders of magnitude larger in duration.

    Then again, as Keynes supposedly said, “In the long run we are all dead.” He might have added, “In the long, long run our species is extinct.”

  30. Oil Production:

    Four years ago world oil production was about 76 million barrels a day. Now it’s around 81 million. About a 7% increase.

    Despite prices around and above $100 US a barrel four years ago, we only got enough investment to increase oil production by around 5% with the rest coming from conventional oil fields in Iraq returning to production due to changes in people killing each other.

    Saudi production is about 700,000 barrels a day off their highest ever peak which was less than a year ago. They have had massive investment in their oil fields with clearly diminishing returns in terms of production.

    Russia is close to their maximum production which was also very recent.

    Interesting thing is, investment in new US production, which had crashed with the fall in oil prices, is now surging. Since remaining US oil is really expensive to extract, this suggests we are heading for high oil prices or US oil producers think the US dollar is going to crash. Either one. Both maybe.

    But I expect this round of oil price increase will be met with a lot of demand destruction. Diesel stationary generation will plummet from its decline. There will be the usual round of improvement in petrol and diesel vehicle efficiency as well as increased production and use of electric vehicles.

    Battery packs of lithium battery cells now appear to be around $150 per kilowatt-hour. Because electric cars are much cheaper to make than internal combustion ones when mass produced at the same razor thing margins on account of how they are far simpler, a short range electric car suitable for use in towns and cities can cost the same as a comparable combustion engine one once production numbers are high enough. Add in lower running costs, reduced pollution, environmental concerns — and the huge issue of national security, and there might be quite a few of them around soon.

    National security is a big issue. It only takes one evil Oompa Loompa to declare that oil in another country belongs to the Oompa Loompa’s country to send everyone into a tizzy. This will happen, as it always does, even though the exact details of which Oompa Loompas are involved will change according to fashion, heart attacks in existing Oompa Loompas, etc.

  31. Oh man! Bandwidth! That’s a four minute 39 second video you are expecting me to watch there. I’m in Adelaide you know, which is only a capital city in one of the richest countries in the world. You can’t expect me to be able to watch video!

    Now, let’s see how much of it has downloaded during my rant… 9 seconds. Hmmm… This may take some time…

    Okay, I got to 1 minute 6 seconds before giving up, but the general gist of the story was clear.

    Diesel use off-grid and for isolated small grids, such as on islands, is falling rapidly, mostly due to solar, but also wind, and lithium batteries are now starting to have more than a superficial effect.

    And islands are going to be great places for electric car adoption. When petrol is expensive to import, renewable electricity has a marginal cost of zero or next to it during periods of high production, and a small low cost battery pack gives enough range to reach anywhere you can drive, they make a lot of sense.

  32. @Ronald

    You can read the transcript. 🙂 BTW, even my poor ADSL2 loads that video faster than it progresses while playing. How bad is your internet?

    Of course, I hope that Turnbull’s NBN (No Bl**** Network) never comes to my neighbourhood. If it does I will have less bandwidth than you do or even none at all.

  33. How bad is my internet? Very bad! It’s so bad that if I want to look at cat pictures it’s easier to find a real cat! I have been promised I will get 4 megabits a second in December, but that’s obviously a lie. No one has internet that fast.

  34. I see events in Saudi Arabia have taken an interesting turn, with the word “interesting” of course meaning increased chance of disruption in oil supply and decreased possibility of investment required to maintain production from their oil fields, which are getting harder to maintain production from each year.

    Oh, and real live people who feel and suffer just as keenly as you and me — well, you at least — could get hurt, but news reports rarely seem to focus on that.

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